There's no simple explanation for anything important any of us do, and yeah the human tragedy consists of the necessity of living with the consequences, under pressure, under pressure. -Courage (For Hugh Maclennan): The Tragically Hip
We're forced to bed, but we're free to dream. -Gift Shop: The Tragically Hip
Black Orchestra is a co-operative game for 1-5 players, ages 13 and up, and takes about 60-90 minutes to play. The game's theme is pretty dark. It takes place during the rise of Adolf Hitler to power, and the following events of WWII in Europe. In that setting players are going to take on the role of historical figures attempting to organize, and carry out, assassination plots against the Fuhrer.
As you might expect, this is no easy task! Consider that no one was able to accomplish this in real life, though many tried. Players have to keep a lot of balls in the air for any real chance of success. They must maintain a high level of motivation, yet keep their suspicion low while travelling around Europe collecting items needed to enact their plot. Also, while Hitler's military steamrolls along, player's will have to try to keep his military's support in check. It's a lot to keep track of.
Yet turns are pretty simple. First thing players do is check to see if Hitler, or any of his five "deputies" are at the location you are in. If so, there is some penalty that will impact you.
Next, players get three actions they can take. They can:
Conspire: Which means they are going around stirring up trouble for the Nazis. If they do this enough it will allow them to either raise a character's motivation, or decrease Hitler's military support. However, this could also raise a character's suspicion. It's all determined by symbols rolled on 1-3 dice. Numbers rolled this way provides players with more actions to use.
Move: Move your pawn from one space to an adjacent space.
Draw a Card: Take a card from the "conspirator deck".
Play a Card: Discard a card for the effect it provides.
Share a Card/Item: A player may give OR take an item from another player in the same location.
Search a Location: Each location has a secret item tile on it. Searching allows the players to find out what it is by flipping it over.
Procure Item: Take a known item in a location.
Deliver Item: Take an item in your inventory and deliver it to another location. This is done to lower your suspicion as it is seen that you are going about doing good work for the Reich.
Release a Conspirator from Jail: Yes, conspirators can be arrested! Fellow conspirators can try to get them freed.
Actions can be taken in any order, and even be repeated on the same turn, except for the conspire action which can only be taken once per turn.
Finally, you draw and resolve an event card. These drive the "story" of the war, and trigger various game effects such as Hitler et al moving from place to place, player's motivation or military support changing, etc.
Players win the game if they can achieve success in pulling off an assassination attempt against Hitler. They lose if they all get thrown in jail, or a game ending card called "Documents Located" is revealed, or when all the event cards have been exhausted.
This game is super thematic, and drenched in historical events. It's also really tense. You start off with nothing, and your character is barely motivated to act against Hitler. However, at the end of each turn those event cards are drawn. Suddenly bad things happen, and everyone's motivation increases. With each new level of motivation achieved more can be done. Your hand size increases, or your character's special power is unlocked, finally once characters are "committed", or even "zealous", they are motivated enough to do the deed, and try to take Hitler out.
At the same time that players are running around Europe scheming, they tend to bring more suspicion onto themselves. If that level of suspicion ever becomes "extreme" they are in real peril of being arrested by the gestapo!
There's so many things happening at once that you'll often have everything in order for your attempt, only to have the rug pulled out from under your feet in one of so many ways. This is incredibly frustrating, but it's so good. This is because it always keeps you focused on the game, and on how you're going to accomplish your mission. And most of the time you won't! You'll all end up in jail is my experience. The game can be beaten though (at least on the easy setting). When I beat it I literally cheered out loud. If a game can engage me that deeply, and make me have an emotional reaction like that, then it's better than 99% of all the other games I've played.
So, what's good? It has a beautiful board, and artwork on the cards. The designers used many period photographs on the event cards to add to the historical flavour.
Key rules are written on the board for easy reference.
There's lots of little historical notes on the event cards that gives a sense of what happened/is happening.
The game has integrated a few ways to prolong replayability through variable set-up. For one, the event cards are laid out in seven piles, or "stages" (which means things play out in the game in roughly the same order they did in history). Two cards are randomly, and secretly, removed from each pile, so that events are going to be slightly different each game. The item tiles that are placed out on the board are done so secretly, and at random as well. Also, there are more conspirator characters than can play the game. Each player is randomly given a character to use. Since they have different powers this will affect how the game plays too.
I love the Press Your Luck elements. This is mainly to do with rolling dice to accomplish various objectives. But there's also questions you ask yourself like, "Do I go after Hitler now, or wait until the situation is more favourable?"
I like how the rule book tells us how many lives are saved depending on at what stage in history you are able to assassinate him. It gives even more incentive to get the job done.
So, what's bad (for me)? The rules are fairly simple. But despite being short, the rule book has a couple problems where rules in the book and/or written on the board contradict each other. There is an Errata and FAQ that can be found in the Black Orchestra forums, but not everyone will know about that.
After all the effort they put into making a beautiful board, and cards, and chits, and conspirator boards, they found the absolute cheapest hollowed out plastic pawns to represent the characters on the board. I am a very visual person. Therefore, I really appreciate the look of this game, but the cheap plastic pawns are so out of place here. They look like they come from some third rate kids game. They're visually jarring, and pull me out of the theme a bit. Yeah, they're functional, but man do they look and feel bad. I know it would up the price of the game, but nice (pre-painted) minis that looked like the characters they're meant to represent would have been WAY more fitting.
The game is a little fiddly. Especially when moving Hitler and his crew around. They are represented by small flat chits, which my grown man fingers are supposed to pick up. I think these will be the first pieces destroyed as I fumble with them to try to get them off the board. Again, nice minis of the characters would have brought me more into the theme, and would have been more functional.
The insert for the box is a very basic double trough style. So the game elements are sort of just swimming around in there. Yes plastic bags were included, but it's still not ideal. I do like to sleeve my cards, so I guess the bright side is that sleeved cards fit in the box easily. But a nice insert that housed everything, and accommodated sleeved cards, would have been much better.
So, what might be bad for you? The game is about as random as you could imagine. As mentioned there's random set up. There's lots of rolling dice for things, though that can be mitigated to some extent. There are also random card draws, which affect the game state in all sorts of ways. So, if you don't like random games then forget this one. I don't mind it at all. I think for this topic random elements are a must. In reality you wouldn't know where Hitler and his men are going to show up, when the gestapo are about to carry out a surprise raid, or when a myriad of other events are going to happen and how they will impact you.
The theme is very dark as I said before. The events of the game take place while literally millions of people are suffering, and dying. And though Hitler could very well be the most hated person in history, you are still plotting to kill a human being. Obviously, this won't suit all tastes.
Having said all that if you like co-ops, or push-your-luck, or the history of WWII, or engrossing themes in general, then I highly recommend this game. Black Orchestra is a beauty to behold, and an exhilarating experience to have. It is immediately one of my favourite games. If they ever come out with a miniatures upgrade pack it could even become my favourite game.
Nice review, thanks for it.
I just played for the first time last night. Really enjoyed it, even though we lost. I had no idea what to expect, no particular interest in the theme, and totally got swept up in it. The theme really comes through, and I now realize it was a great choice. It felt like we were conspirators, it felt like we were taking risks, it felt like the authorities might be on to us but weren't entirely sure.
I would recommend it. I'm thinking of getting a copy for myself and trying to convince my far-from-regular board game group to give it a shot.